The notion that we should change our language as a (let’s face it, tokenistic) inclusionary gesture toward disabled people by referring to them as ‘people with disability’ whilst well-meant in many circumstances, obscures the fact that there is a certain amount of self-protective censure which underpins this impulse. There is a sense in which it is easier to refer to disabled people in such a way, because it hides from us the ways in which we, collectively as a society, literally disable those who don’t align seamlessly with our notions of wellness, happiness, productivity and freedom.
The ideological orientation that underpins our late-capitalist Western society forecloses any understanding of other ways in which humans can live and move and have their being. Despite touting individuality and the pursuit of happiness as core values, through various structures it consistently attempts to homogenise, pasteurise, and produce subjects solely focussed on increasing productivity. Within this framework, any body (or mind, if that distinction holds up) which does not conform, which refuses to be (or cannot be) homogenised, which requires additional assistance, is viewed as ‘deficient’, ‘unhealthy’ or, as we have been discussing, ‘disabled’.
People with disabilities stand as a challenge to this orientation, provoking anxiety in those who don’t understand what disability is, or means, for those living with it. As an attempt to quell this anxiety, we adopt terminology which focusses on the personhood of those with disability, which all-too-often places the particularity of their disability under erasure and merely serves to safeguard the anxious from any real encounter with that person. We are nothing if not that which differentiates us from each other; at bottom, we’re more different than we are alike. The focus on shared personhood often (barely) obscures our difficulty with accepting, being challenged by, and ultimately celebrating difference.
None of this is to say that we should dehumanise those who live with disabilities by thinking of and interacting with them simply as ‘disabled’, by refusing to acknowledge their inhabitance of the full, and in many respects shared, breadth of human experience. Rather, it is a call to allow disabled people to challenge us, to provoke us toward thinking about the ways in which we ourselves have disabled them. Those with disability often, simply by existing, stand as a lived protest against (our) notions of ‘independence’, ‘happiness’ and ‘wellness’; not that these things don’t exist for disabled people, but that their experience of these notions is often different to those living within an ableist society. Disabled people are real, fleshly embodiments of other ways of being in the world, which continually stand as an affront to the homogenisation processes we have currently installed in our societies.